Tag Archives: Business

Should You Trust Your Critics?

How to see through the smokescreen of ego. (Image: DeviantArt)

I’ve heard it said before that every songwriter writes from insecurity, but that’s not quite right. Every songwriter writes from ego.

No doubt about it. There’s something innately gratifying about completing a song that props you up for the rest of the week. When you pluck some delicious chorus melody out of the air and scribble it down, there’s a significant part of you that wants to light up a cigar, lean back in your chair, and utter that immortal adage of satisfaction: ‘Boom’.

So it naturally hurts when someone pokes their finger through your cigar-hazed fantasy. Your first fully completed song hangs framed above the mantle; you sit bleary-eyed with love, reminiscing about how each perfectly constructed line came into being. But suddenly, a snickity little gremlin appears from your periphery, shouting words of abuse so vile as to curse down the sun, and you fold into a little sweaty ball of misery. Sound familiar?

Your first encounter with criticism is make-or-break time. It’s where your artistic ideas, which get cosy in the comfort of your own head, are thrust into the real, cold world. And it’s serious: some people never recover from the first go-around. But let me give you a little phrase to remember next time you come up against the gremlin:

‘Your critics are always right, and your critics are never right.’

Let me explain. Remember your heavy metal phase? Remember buying that brand new amp, turning it up to 11, and rocking out that first solo? Remember your little sister slamming through the door, stuffing her pigtails in her ears, yelling ‘SHUT UP, YOU SUCK!’ She was, in many ways, just as eloquent as much of the modern music press, and she was a valuable critic.

Another example. I was busking in my local town centre, and playing one of my own songs. A bedraggled, ineffably cool man carrying a guitar was stood watching me from the opposite street corner. As I finished, he walked up to me and dropped ten pounds in the box, and said: ‘Play that song again’.

The musician and the sister are two critics: one hated me, one loved me. One didn’t know a thing about music, one probably knew a fair bit. But here’s what I mean to say: Both opinions were equally right.

Everybody, critic or not, belongs to a demographic: both of the above opinions reflected the demographics that the critics belonged to, and so were equally right. But both were equally wrong, because they failed to represent any demographic other than their own.

Your Warhammer-obsessed male flatmate who tells you your song sucks is only speaking from the Warhammer-obsessed demographic. Your bleary-eyed elderly teacher who loves your singing voice is speaking only from that perspective. Your little sister utterly reflects her age group when she says that heavy metal sucks, but if you were playing Disney songs she’d be loving it.

But where does this leave our central question? Musicians, just like any salesman in the marketplace, must aim their products at certain demographics. You should therefore only trust the critics who are representative of the demographic you’re aiming it. But, like a sensible entrepreneur, take note of everything you hear: if you suddenly notice a groundswell of critical reception from the over-65’s, maybe you should take aim there. Always offer what they’re calling for.

So don’t get downbeat when the gremlin curses your work. You can keep the cigar, but make sure you can see through the smoke.

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Filed under Business, Performance

The Secret Ingredient Of Productivity

Kung Fu Panda (2008) - Enlightening productivity ideas and family fun.

I am writing to you, gentle reader, in a state of disarray. After crash-landing back into my university schedule I have suddenly been inundated with countless pressures on my time and energy. I feel as though I’m trapped in a giant, greasy bagel of need which is sucking out all my creative juices.

Needless to say: songs still need to be written, blogs still need to be written, essays still need to be written. But how can it be managed? How can you remain productive? I’ll tell ya, but first I’m going to explain the airborne omnivore currently floating in your eyeline.

Mr Kung Fu Panda, or Po to his friends, works at a noodle shop run by his dad, Ping. Ping sells loads of noodles because of the ‘secret ingredient’ that they contain, which apparently makes them extra nice. Po, disapproving of this dull business venture, nonchalantly becomes a Dragon Master, appears in a short training montage, and goes up against some kind of evil tiger.

However, at his moment of doubt, when all hope is fading, when he realises that he can never fulfill his promise to be a Dragon Master, he turns to Ping.

“Son,” Ping says, “Do you want to know the secret ingredient of my noodles?

“There is no secret ingredient.”

I know that many may not appreciate taking advice from a cartoon goose, but this is too important to miss out on.

Productivity is a state of mind. If you feel energised and focused, you will work more and therefore produce more. So, whatever you do to make you feel productive actually makes you more productive. Let me explain.

I reckon it’s all down to the placebo effect. Many of you will already know what this is, so I won’t go into detail, but you can Wikipedia it if the mood strikes you. It basically means that if you attribute an object/situation with an effect, the brain will simulate the effect and make you believe it is working. For example, if you tell someone that an M&M will make their headache go away, it will help kill the pain of their headache. But there’s no secret ingredient in the M&M which suddenly turns it into an efficient painkiller: you are the secret ingredient.

It also applies to the creative process. I have a friend who could only write poetry if she drove out to a remote location and scribbled in the dark. Roald Dahl could only write in his shed, using a rotting plank as a desk. Both effective, if slightly mental, placebos.

I have purpose-built my own placebo. Want to know what it is? Tea. Yes, Tea. If you didn’t know I was English before, you do now. When I’m working, I do 50 minutes on, 10 minutes tea drinking. This can go on for hours before I need a proper break. It’s not the caffeine, the heat or even the regular breaks that make me productive, though they probably contribute: It’s just that when I hold that mug of Tetley’s in the morning, I feel the need to work.

How did I do this? The law of repetition and relation. A fair while ago, I purchased Call of Duty 4, and on the same shopping trip bought a new coat, filled with fake fur which had a very distinctive smell. The heating had gone out in our house, so as I settled in for a massive sesh I put on my new coat. To this day, when I smell that fake fur I feel like I want to shoot things. The repetition of playing for such a long time had related the smell of the coat with the feeling. Weird, eh?

So what does this mean for you? It means that if you discover a placebo that naturally makes you work harder, turn it into a habit. With enough repetition, you will relate the object to the feeling, like my cup of Tetley’s. Your creative juices will flow, you’ll become super-productive, and you’ll finally take your place as a Dragon Master.

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Filed under Arrangement, Lyrics, Melody, Structure